07 May

3 Big Ideas for B2B Product People: Mairi Miller from Nanometrics

MairiMillerAs Head of Corporate Marketing at Nanometrics, Mairi’s done some pretty interesting stuff when it comes to understanding her customers.  Beginning with the creation of a “Customer Experience Taskforce,” she found ways to gather deep insights about the difficulties her customers — mostly scientists measuring shifts in the earth — face daily. From there, she focused on how Nanometrics could improve their experience.

Here’s what she had to say:

  1. Even smart customers appreciate user friendly products
    We first formed the Customer Experience Taskforce because we felt distanced from our customers — we were designing products for people that we hardly knew. We decided to do a bunch of in-person interviews to get to know them better, and the results were astounding.

    One interview stands out in particular: We talked to a group of scientists that had just returned from the South Pole. These folks had had a less-than-stellar experience with our equipment, but not for the reason we expected!

    The equipment itself worked perfectly. The pain point was in actually deploying the equipment and setting it up. We’d assumed that these scientists, as smart as they were, would have the same technical know-how that a group of engineers would. Not so — they were experts in reading the data, not in how our tools worked.

    From these interviews, we realized there was a large gap in our offering when it came to giving scientists a user-friendly experience. We also uncovered a brand new opportunity for expanding our business by offering installation services and engineering expertise.

  2. To influence change, focus on the preexisting pain points within your own company.

    As a marketer, it became obvious to me that we could learn a lot from an in-depth, intentional study of our customer base. But part of the struggle was convincing everyone else internally — engineers and C-suite alike — that the project would be worthwhile.

    Eventually, we found that we could make our case for forming the Customer Experience Taskforce most effectively by framing it in terms of a pain point the company was already experiencing. We decided to focus on a somewhat recently released product that was underperforming, and aimed our pitch to our executive staff around getting customer feedback in order to improve sales.

    The response was fantastic. Instead of a resource-sucking side project, the taskforce was now directly in line with an existing company initiative.

  3. Data is only meaningful when aggregated; and presentation style matters.

    When you interview people, especially scientists, you end up gathering a ton of feedback. I mean, a ton. And it’s messy, too — not all of it will fit nicely into buckets, and aggregating it into something useful can be tricky.

    As we began collecting data, we started to get very excited about what we were finding. But, we had to wait to share it with the team — we knew that sharing the raw data would be overwhelming and potentially misleading to others that weren’t looking at all the findings at once.

    Despite the eagerness of others in the company, we decided to keep our findings confidential until we could present them all at once. I’m glad we did. We were able to curate the most powerful stories and the most impactful feedback, and deliver it all in one cohesive presentation that contributed to repositioning our company from a product manufacturer to one that offers services, too.


Powerful stuff! (And we’re talking about earthquakes here, so the bar is high!) I had one more question for Mairi, of course: “Dr. Strange or Dr. Who?”

I loved Mairi’s answer: “I never saw Dr. Strange, but Dr. Who creeped me out as a kid! Now, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, those are my favorites!”

Fair enough! See you next month.


25 Nov

Customers are Smarter Than You Think


I don’t know why the hipsters accepted a nerd like me into their social circle but they did.

As a young woman in my twenties I found myself regularly going out to clubs with a set of stylish young things despite the fact that my presence significantly brought down the cool quotient.  One of the women in the group always wore cute little strappy sandaled high heels, no matter what the weather.   I live in Canada, so weather is no minor consideration in February.

“Ooooooo…. I’m so cold!”  She would squeal and shiver, hugging herself.  Inevitably, some guy would come around and offer her his coat, or sometimes wrap his arms around her comfortingly.

I just thought she needed some solid, practical advice on footwear.

“You know what you should do?” I ventured helpfully, “You should really get these Sorel boots.  They keep you totally warm even in -35 weather!” (that’s -31 F for you Farenheit folks).  She stared blankly at me from under the arms of some suave, bearded hipster in a trucker baseball cap.

I was truly mystified.  Why on earth would she wear shoes like that in the winter?

We repeated this conversation about 6 times before she finally firmly pulled me aside and said “F*** off with the boots already, OK?!?”

It was then that I finally clued into the fact that she knew exactly what she was doing.

I was under the mistaken impression that she was behaving irrationally or needed some information about sensible shoe choices.  Like it somehow wasn’t obvious that wearing open-toed sandals in a blizzard was not the optimal choice for keeping warm.

It was however, the perfectly rational choice for what she was trying to do.


I have this experience when interviewing customers all the time. 

We often enter into interviews thinking that the customer needs to be educated, or perhaps is just not very intelligent.  It is not unusual for me to hear from clients (especially from the engineering team) “Our users are stupid”.

However, we usually find that customers are behaving perfectly rationally and intelligently.  They just have a different frame of reference, and different goals than we expect them to.

A while ago, I conducted some interviews in which we asked customers about how they use certain security features.  Surprisingly, almost nobody used the security features the way they were supposed to.

Our first thought was that perhaps they didn’t understand the benefits of the added security and the audit trail.

But they did.

Then we thought, perhaps they just didn’t understand how to use the darn thing.

But they did.

Finally, we asked them why they did it the way they did and they said that it was basically too much of a hassle, and it didn’t provide them with enough benefit.  The security benefit was to protect them against some hypothetical threat at some point in the future, but in the meantime, they were under the gun to get their work done quickly.  Doing things the quick and less secure way seemed like the sensible thing to do.

While we were trying to give them the sensible shoes, they were just trying to snag the suave hipster (and keep their boss happy).

When you suspect your customers of behaving stupidly, you should stop and make sure that you understand their frame of reference. 

Customers are smarter than you think.

Photo Credit:  http://www.spera.de/  (pretty awesome shoes too)

18 Sep

A story is worth a thousand graphs


Joey was a happy and healthy eight year old boy with lots of friends.  One day, his buddy was over for a game of Minecraft and a sleepover when all of a sudden, a giggle fit turned into choking sounds.  Joey turned to his mother and gasped “Mom, I can’t breathe!”

His mom grabbed him, threw him in the car, and raced off to the nearest emergency room.  When she got there she parked in the ambulance zone because Joey was starting to turn blue and she wasn’t able to carry him in without help.  “I thought he was going to die right in front of me” she said.

Let me pause here and ask you a question.

Do you want to find out what happens next?  

I bet you do.

This is because your brain is hardwired to want to know what happens next in a story.  That is a profound part of what makes us human.

Scheherazade knew this important detail about people when she always ended her stories with a cliff hanger for the Persian king – so that he let her live for another day.  As a result, the rest of us got a collection of stories of those 1001 nights (well not really, but it makes for a good story).

Stories move people in ways that facts and figures don’t.  Stories will stay with you far longer than a statistic.  Politicians know this.  That is why they talk about “Joe the Plumber” or “Mary from Milwaukee” in their stump speeches rather than focus on statistics.  The power of stories are why a picture of a drowned toddler on a Turkish beach prompted more action from the international community than innumerable people telling us that thousands of children die every day because of the conflicts in the Middle East.   A thousand dead children is a statistic.  A single drowned toddler is a tragedy.

Customer research has to do the same thing.   It has to tell the story of your customers.  That’s why Customer Journey Maps are such a powerful tool for getting the organization aligned around what their customers are experiencing.  It remains my favorite go-to-tool for getting everyone from the executive level to the tech support agent on the same page about what it’s like to be a customer.

Whenever I use other research tools like surveys, social media listening, or usability tests, I always have to work hard to craft a customer story from that data.  Because I know from bitter experience that without a story to frame the research results, the research gets shelved.

When I started as a starry-eyed people data nerd, I thought that by doing research and collecting data, the data would “speak for itself” and persuade people to make evidence based decisions.

Wrong.   Here’s what usually happened instead.

A sales person would pipe up with a story “from the field” and that story become the single data point that team would rally around.  “We need to help people like Bob the Builder!” they would announce.

But… but… my charts?  Anyone?

Sound familiar?


That’s what makes Customer Journey interviews so powerful.  By interviewing a relatively small number of customers, you can create an aggregate story that is representative of the collective experience.  It’s a great way to package customer data because it is truly data driven, but it is inherently in the form that decision makers will immediately understand, remember, and be compelled to act on.

Oh, you must be wondering what happened to poor Joey.

Thanks to his mom’s quick actions, he pulled through his crisis.  It turned out to be a suddenly developed allergy.  He is now recovered and healthy again, as long as he avoids that particular allergen.

Do you feel better now?   I know I do.  Everyone loves a happy ending.

(Photo credits: Shutterstock | Matt GibsongStock-studio)


29 Apr

Talk Less, Listen More


“I use this amazing music software.  They know exactly what musicians need!”

“I want a doctor who will listen to me and let me be an advocate for my daughter.”

“I love my hair stylist.  He really listens to what I want.  He doesn’t just do whatever he thinks is trendy.”

In the last few weeks, these are actual snippets of real conversations that I had with people talking about the products and services they buy and use.

Notice that the common thread here is that people are talking about how much they love the fact that they feel listened to.  It is such a simple idea, it is a wonder that more companies don’t do it.

Think about it.  When was the last time you spoke with any company and you felt like they listened to what you had to say?  I would hazard a guess that your default expectation was that you would be ignored.   We expect to be put on hold.  We expect to get emails from “no-reply” addresses.  We expect to sit around in endless tech support loops.  We expect telemarketers to doggedly and resolutely go through their pitch, regardless of anything we say.

Can you remember the last time you felt listened to by a business?  If it has ever happened at all, I’m guessing that you remember it quite vividly since it is such a rare occurrence.  That time the bank teller said right away “no problem ma’am, we’ll get that fixed”.  The time you used some software that seemed to know exactly what you needed.   That time you paid for parking at one of those pay parking kiosks and didn’t want to kick it in from frustration.

I will let you in on  my dirty little professional secret. 

So much of what I do in my consulting practice is really just a fancy term for “listening”. 

Getting to know your customers so that you know what they need before they do – that comes from listening.   If you want to know your customers’ problems better than they know it themselves, you can’t do that if you are focused on “email blasts”.  You need to stop blasting and let them talk to you.  You can call it “Market Research” or “Voice of Customer” or “Customer Experience Strategy”  but in the end, it all comes down to different techniques and strategies of listening.

This is a simple concept, but like many simple concepts, it is not easy to do.  If you don’t believe me, try this simple test.

The next time you are at a party with lots of new people, or at one of those networking events we all dread, try to actively learn more about the person you are talking to than to get them to learn about you.  You will find that it is surprisingly difficult to turn off the “OK now it’s my turn to talk” part of your brain.

In business, the urge to do all the talking is amplified.  We want to rise above the noise by talking more, or talking more loudly, or listing all our amazing features (the more the better!).  But pay attention to who YOU pay attention to the most.  Is it the company who talks the loudest and the most often, or is it the company that stopped talking and listened to you?

The best news of all? The bar for listening to customers is incredibly low.  

Talk less, listen more. Then watch how it makes a difference.

02 Apr

Do you suffer from L.E.S. (Loudest Engineer Syndrome)?


Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You are sitting around a table in a corporate conference room with your team.  The purpose of the meeting is to decide on the features of the product so you’ve gathered together all the people that you think should have a say in this decision, which usually involves an engineer or two or three.  You talk about it.  “We need to do feature x in red” says someone.  Others disagree. “No, we need to do feature x in blue”.

The meeting circles around for a while.  Then you have someone in the room that is really opinionated.  He insists that his way is the CORRECT way.  And builds a case for it.  Loudly.  He nonchalantly brushes aside objections as being illogical, or not having data to back it up.  He puts the burden of proof of those that resist his ideas.

Finally, people end up agreeing with him.  Partly because they are just beaten down, but also because no one has any evidence to support an alternate point of view.  

What just happened here?  You just made a product decision because:

  • You wanted to avoid another painful meeting like this one
  • You are running out of time and any decision seemed better than no decision
  • You didn’t want to antagonize the loud engineer


Clearly, none of these are very good grounds to make product decisions.  If you find it frustrating to make decisions this way, how do you think your customers feel when they have to live with the results?

What is intriguing about this scenario is that most of the people involved in it know that it’s a bad way to make decisions, but they do it anyways.  If you were to ask them, “do you think that product decisions should be made on what brings the most value to the customer?”  No one would disagree.  So why does this happen?

Usually this comes up when the team has a poor understanding of their customer.  When a team really and truly understands who they are building a product for, these kinds of decisions become much easier.   With a definite user in mind as a guiding principle, it becomes clear whether or not feature X should be done in blue or in red.  Of maybe even that feature X doesn’t even matter than much –  so honestly, who cares what color it is?  Just pick one and move on.

Let me just say here that I love engineers (I even married one!).  Engineers are the ones that are ultimately responsible for building the thing, and they are artisans at heart.  But here is the thing about engineers.  They need to be persuaded that what they are building is being done for good reason.  If they don’t buy into it, they will pull out the “that can’t be done” card, which trumps all other cards on the table.

Also, engineers tend to be data driven, so that is just another reason why it is important that this understanding of the customer be evidence based. It can’t be cooked up in a boardroom with no connection to reality. And it certainly should not be decided after all the decisions have already been made so that you invent a hypothetical persona that happens to need all the features you want to build.

I’m not suggesting that you subject every single decision to rigorous testing. Rather, that you front-load a lot of the work by making sure that you have a strong understanding of who is using your product and why.

Here is the key point. If you find yourself making decisions based on the loudest engineer in the room, it is usually a symptom of a deeper problem. It probably means that the team does not understand the customer well enough to make decisions any other way.

(Photo credit Creative Commons Commercial License: http://bit.ly/1C6BjCz)

18 Mar

Don’t do research if you won’t use it

Do you ever plan a vacation with no intention of going?

Do you ever research the best schools in town even though you don’t have kids?

Do you ever research houses and the best mortgage rates when you know you won’t be in the market for a new house anytime soon?

I don’t, and most people don’t. However, I see companies commissioning research with no plan to use it all the time.

Here are some the reasons why companies might not use their research.

  • It costs too much to act on the recommendations.
  • The people who asked for the research are different than the people who can take action, and they don’t see eye-to-eye.
  • They didn’t really want the research, they just wanted “validate our assumptions”, and dismissed the data when it actually contradicted their assumptions.
  • They plan to act on the research next month, or next quarter, or for the next release… or… well, that research is old now. We should do some new research.
  • They have too much data coming in at them from all directions (analytics, market research, social media, customer requests). They are data-rich but insight-poor. As a result, they ignore it.
  • The research didn’t answer a question they really cared about so it was easy to ignore.
  • The research is not relevant for where the product cycle is right now. For example, if the product is halfway developed, this would be a bad time to do research on what the product should be. If the answer isn’t “Exactly what we are building right now” what can you do with that information?


Think about it, when you undertake a research project, you are using a lot of resources. Your time, your money, the researchers time, your customers’ time. Before you make that investment, shouldn’t you make sure that you have a plan to use it?

You would never do research in your personal life if you had no intention of using it. Why should your business be any different?

(photo credit: http://bit.ly/1LtXTPc (CCCL))